Missouri puts bridges on fast track
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
In Minnesota, where a major bridge collapsed in August, the governor and legislators are locked in a battle over how to finance the state's backlog of transportation repairs. But Missouri is moving forward with a novel plan to fix or replace more than 800 of the state's bridges within five years.
Missouri's plan has a team of contractors financing the $400 million to $600 million in repairs and maintaining the bridges for another quarter century. In turn, the Show-Me State will use a portion of its federal bridge funds to pay back the companies over 25 years.
Already in the works before the Minnesota tragedy, the Missouri plan is now being touted as a model for the rest of the nation.
"With this innovative new approach to transportation, we will do in five years what would have taken us 20 years before," said Missouri state Rep. Neal St. Onge. (R). "We are getting maximum value for taxpayers and keeping the public safe as well."
In addition to getting a lot of bridges fixed in a short time, Missouri's approach has a short-term political benefit. Lawmakers don't have to sell the public on the need for higher gasoline taxes or new tolls - proposals that have stopped transportation funding packages in other places, including Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
Missouri's plan also appealed to contractors who could recoup as much as twice their construction costs as the state repays the companies over the 25 years. The state essentially will pay back a loan for the building costs, profit and interest that the winning bidder has included in the proposal, said Jeff Briggs, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Transportation.
The nation's bridges have been under intense scrutiny since a 458-foot span over the Mississippi River collapsed in downtown Minneapolis on Aug. 1, killing more than a dozen motorists and sending politicians into frenzy. The 40-year-old bridge was just one of more than 73,000 across the country in need of significant structural repair, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
The nation's governors immediately ordered inspections of their states' bridges and decried the lack of money to fix the nation's crumbling infrastructure. Congress also reacted quickly, approving $250 million in emergency funds to help replace the Minnesota bridge, one of the state's most heavily traveled.
Missouri has accepted bids from two teams of construction firms, which will pay to repair or replace nearly 80 percent of bridges in the state that are in poor condition. The private firms also will be required to keep those bridges in good shape for 25 years after the repairs.
But the plan has its limitations. Besides the large payout, the program is targeting only smaller, rural bridges - from 100 feet to 300 feet long. None of Missouri's 11 steel-deck truss bridges, which resemble the Minneapolis span, is slated to be repaired under the plan, said Briggs of the Missouri Department of Transportation.
In addition, few companies could commit to completing such a statewide project. Two of the four original teams to bid on Missouri's plan dropped out because they could not meet the program's requirements.
Despite those issues, there was little opposition to the plan in a late summer special legislative session, where lawmakers passed a bill to change Missouri's bonding requirements to make way for the bridge projects.
But in Minnesota, a recent special legislative session ended without a hoped-for package of road and bridge funding. While federal funds are expected to cover the cost of replacing the Minneapolis bridge, the state will have to pay for the costs upfront in order to be reimbursed. Without an infusion of new money, some worry the state may have to sideline other projects to begin rebuilding the Minneapolis bridge.
Democrats charge that Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has backed away from earlier promises to consider gas tax increases to pay for bridge and road repairs. Pawlenty accused legislative leaders of loading up their proposal with too many extra fees and has insisted that a gas tax hike be offset by a corresponding cut in income taxes.
Earlier this year, Pawlenty vetoed a $5 billion transportation package that would have been financed in part with a hike in the state's 22-cent gas tax, last raised in 1988.
Proposals to pay for bridge and road repairs with tolling is not faring much better in Pennsylvania, where Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's plan to add tolls to a section of Interstate 80 has hit a buzz saw of opposition within the state and on Capitol Hill.
Rendell and the Pennsylvania General Assembly agreed to the tolling plan as a way to collect $950 million a year for transportation projects. The state has more than 9,500 bridges that need significant repairs or are inadequate for the amount of traffic they carry - the highest number in the nation, according to federal data.
But a slew of civic groups fear the tolling will discourage tourism and trucking along the I-80 corridor and are asking state and federal lawmakers to reconsider their plans. The General Assembly has adjourned until next year, but two Pennsylvania congressmen already have attached language to a transportation funding bill to prohibit tolls on that stretch of interstate.
Rendell has said that if the current toll proposal falls through, he will revert to a plan to lease the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private company.